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Ain't No Thing: The Grammar of African American Vernacular English

A different version of this post appeared in The Magazine. Subscribe!

In 1996, the Oakland, California school board officially recognized the legitimacy of Ebonics. Note that no modern linguist embraces the term “Ebonics”; the more accurate—and less politically charged—label is African American Vernacular English (AAVE). Ebonics is more [LF to GF: is “colorful” inappropriate here? It’s what I want, but worry about connotation; other term I could use is “fun to say”], but I’ll stick with AAVE here.

With that out of the way: When the school board in northern California issued its decree on AAVE, it, controversy erupted. Mostly because people didn’t actually understand what the heck was going on.

The educators in California weren’t hoping to teach kids AAVE; this wasn’t an attempt to get “ain’t” in the grammar books. Rather, the Oakland school board’s ruling was meant to stop unfairly punishing kids whose first instinct was to speak the way they were taught to at home.

Critics of AAVE attacked strawmen—Jim ScareCrows, if you will: “You can’t teach this stuff!” they fretted, though no one wanted to teach it. And, just as wrongly, they claimed that AAVE was sloppy, messy, unstructured language. Let’s disprove that falsehood first.

The grammar of AAVE: negatives

Though AAVE doesn’t follow traditional American English’s rules of grammar, it instead enforces its own. Some of AAVE’s grammatical structures closely mirror those of French. (Zut alors!) Here are a couple examples.

A common AAVE construction follows this pattern:

I ain’t got none.
I ain’t singin’ nothing.
I ain’t never eat no sushi.

English grammar teachers might cringe at the offensive double negatives on display. They’re ungrammatical in traditional English, but they’re not without precedent. As you can see, AAVE wraps negators on either side of the verbs. Here are those same sentences in French:

Je n‘en ai pas.
Je ne chanterai pas.
Je n‘ai jamais manger des sushis.

As you can see, French does exactly the same thing. What in traditional English would qualify as an ungrammatical double negative, in French—and AAVE—is in fact the correct and necessary phrasing. Though obviously different from English’s own rules, the two-part negation in French isn’t wrong in the latter language, any more than it’s wrong that the word for “annoying” in French is “pénible.”

If you judge I ain’t got none as standard English, it’s certainly wrong. But judged on its own merits, given its strong adherence to its own rules for negation, AAVE’s negations follow its own strict grammar.

An interesting element of AAVE’s rules for negatives is that, in negative statements, every possible negation should be used:

I ain’t tell nobody nothing about no sushi.

The grammar of AAVE: the imperfect

Another way that AAVE’s gramar rules mirror those of French: both employ an imperfect tense. Traditional American English doesn’t have such a tense, but it’s easy enough to grasp.

The imperfect (l’imparfait in French) is a kind of past tense. In French, the imperfect tense is used for a variety of purposes, most of which are beyond our scope right now. (You can merçi me later for not getting into them.) But one common use of the French imperfect is to describe habitual, repeated actions or states of existence.

“In high school, I read a lot.” Au lycée, je lisais beaucoup.

Let’s not discuss all the different verb tenses and endings in French, but the “ais” suffix attached to the verb lire (to read), indicates that we’re using the imperfect tense here, referring to a habitual reading during my high school years. AAVE offers a very similar tense, but instead of suffixes, it leverages the presence of the verb to be.

The following AAVE sentence indicates that the individual being described is currently in the act of exhibiting craziness, but isn’t habitually so:

He crazy, but he don’t be crazy.

Prescriptivists* object vehemently to AAVE’s dropping of the seemingly necessary “to be” verb “is” before the first “crazy,” and the mismatched use of “be” in the latter half of the sentence. Again, though, this isn’t sloppy English. It’s rule-based AAVE. The rules in question here: Drop any “to be” verb when describing the present tense (“He crazy”), and use “be” regardless of the subject to identify an imperfect tense verb (“He be crazy”).

* Prescriptivists decree grammar rules, and identify right and wrong usages. Descriptivists, on the other hand, analyze the rules language speakers actually employ, and study them. Linguists generally believe that the actual rules of grammar are the ones that you can use to describe how speakers of a language really use it.

These are but two of the many grammatical constructs that govern AAVE. The point isn’t that AAVE’s grammar rules are just like French’s. Many AAVE grammar rules emulate rules from other languages: Its use of unmarked past tense (for example, omitting the -ed suffix as in He pass his driver’s test yesterday) is akin to similar structures in Asian and Native American languages; its unmarked plurality in noun phrases (I want three scoop [of] ice cream) hews closely to how Japanese works.

The point, then, is that AAVE is a language. Rather than being sloppy or haphazard, it’s strictly rule-based; you can speak AAVE incorrectly. If it were sloppy, you wouldn’t see AAVE speakers making the same so-called mistakes again and again.

It’s easy to ascribe criticisms of AAVE as a language to racism, and probably often accurate, too, but those criticisms are likely just as often rooted in ignorance regarding what languages really are. Critics may claim that AAVE is just “made up,” forgetting that American English isn’t exactly codified in our DNA, either.

(That said, if you feel like really blowing your own mind, dive into Noam Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar, to learn how many linguists do believe that the roots of language—and specifically grammar—are hard-wired into the human brain, and that certain grammar rules are endemic to all human language.)

Okay, so AAVE is a language. So what? What the heck was Oakland’s point in the mid-1990s?

AAVE, education, and code switching

Ray Jackendoff, currently the Co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, and formerly Chair of the Linguistics Program at Brandeis University while I studied there, studied linguistics under Chomsky at MIT. When I spoke to him about AAVE, he pointed me toward a brief passage in his 2002 book Foundations of Language, wherein he makes this point:

“An important part of learning to read is appreciating how orthography reflects pronunciation. If one is teaching reading of Standard English to a child who does not speak it, it is difficult to establish this crucial link.”

Rebecca Wheeler is a linguistics professor at Christopher Newport University in Newport News Virginia. It was Professor Wheeler who schooled me on my use of the term “Ebonics”: “When the public uses the term Ebonics, it pulls with it all the societal negative connotations—the ridicule, the jokes, the sneering, all of that, so linguists don’t use the term. It’s not a technical term, and we seek to avoid negative associations.”

Wheeler would also want me to stress this insight she offered me: “To suggest AA[V]E is legitimate because its rules emulate other languages is to make it dreivative and comparitive, instead of focusing on its own inteneral integrity, regardless of its similarites to modern American English and anything else.”

When I told Wheeler that my plan was to write a piece on the grammar of Ebonics, she—in the most polite terms—indicated that such a piece would miss the important story.

Remember, Oakland wasn’t trying to get Ebonics taught in its schools. Rather, the school board’s ruling aimed to encourage teachers to accept that students growing up with AAVE spoke it as its own distinct language; judging their first language as lousy English, instead of accepting it on its own merits did those students a serious education disadvantage.

“It’s fifteen years later, and nobody knows this stuff,” Wheeler said.

What Wheeler advocates for is teaching students who speak AAVE at home the concept of code switching. The general idea is simply the notion of switching between two different languages as needed.

Rather than labeling their language use as incorrect when students speak or write in AAVE, Wheeler says, teachers should instead coach those students: In formal writing, we say, “I’m not doing anything,” not, “I ain’t doing nothing.”

That’s basically it. Schools should recognize the legitimacy of AAVE as a language for their students, and teach those students to recognize when and how to switch between AVE and American English as appropriate. But most schools don’t do that. They simply teach students that they they speak is wrong. Don’t talk this way, talk our way.

Wheeler wanted me to use this piece to call attention to the fact that the Ebonics controversy of the 1990s didn’t end the right way, that we’re still not doing right by children who grow up with AAVE.

“The consequences are that students are being terribly misassesed in our schools. Teachers think that black kids are making mistakes, when really they’re recreating what they hear and learn at home,” Wheeler said. “They’re counting as mistakes things that are patterns and rule-based, so [the students are] being placed in lower reading groups, and deprived of education and educational enrichment.”

Many of us unfairly judge others based on how they speak. Kenneth the Page on the late, great 30 Rock spoke with a southern accent meant to exemplify his yokel-ness. Maybe you think that British accents sound dignified, or that the Minnesota accent on display in Fargo belies its speakers’ intellectual inferiority.

I asked Wheeler what I could do, or what I could encourage The Magazine’s readers to do. How would my writing about AAVE—its grammar, the education challenges it presents—help matters along?

“People don’t always realize that dialect prejudice still exists,” Wheeler told me. “Reminding them, and explaining notions like the grammatical rules that govern AAVE—that’s a true ‘Aha!’ experience. That alone is important, and people can grasp it—and grasping it, that’s actually a big thing… The consequences are big.”

And Wheeler’s not convinced that linguists have lost this battle yet. “I hope we’re not at the end, because nobody” in the education system seems to understand the facts surrounding AAVE—and the educational solutions: “Teachers do not, school systems do not, reading tests do not, textbooks do not—it’s as if us linguists have been talking into the wind, and it’s dispersed like smoke. We are no-fucking-where.”

One issue, Wheeler says, is that even great teachers are still just people—average people. “An average person does not have the patience to deal with the details of understanding standard English grammar, vernacular English grammar, and figuring out what it all means. The testing system remains entrenched in proper grammar, bad grammar, right and wrong. There’s no room for anything else. It’s appalling.”

And that’s precisely why Wheeler was happy that I was writing this piece. “Sharing the story of AAVE with lay people is a good thing.”

The future soon

AAVE isn’t going to disappear. You might assume that the Internet and our increasing connectedness would lead to a general homogenization of language over time—I did—but we’d both be wrong. “”There’s some recent work out by William Labov from the University of Pennsylvania,” Wheeler told me, “and he has demonstrated that dialects are diverging in the United States; they are not converging. One explanation that is cited is that we change and become similar in language only when we’re in true contact, in authentic linguistic contact, with our interlocoteur. So if you and I came from different parts of the country and moved next door to each other for ten or fifteen years, the language contact in promixity would mean that our speech might become more similar to each other, because we’re having real conversations … engaging in real, authentic, two-way conversation.”

Wheeler continued: “By contrast, media is not an authentic linguistic engagement; it is a one-way system that does not involve a person producing any language at all, so it’s not an authetnic linguistic contact. The media actually does not really influence peoples’ dialects very much.”

Couple the failure of the Internet and mass media to assimilate AAVE with the reality that African American populations are increasingly separated from white populations by socioeconomics, and the only reasonable expectation is, Wheeler says, “the divergence of the language.”

So if our language isn’t going to merge despite the Internet, maybe there’s a chance that our educational philosophies can improve because of it.

Posted on April 16th, 2013